They’ve made a movie of Ron Hansen’s brilliant novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — and it’s reviewed in today’s New York Times. It’s a brilliant novel, and so, I have mixed feelings about the movie version. On the one hand, it’s great that Ron Hansen, a novelist I deeply admire (and one on whom I had a serious crush for any number of years — but alas, he went and got married again), gets a pile of money, and with any luck will sell a bunch of copies of the book.
But since the glory of Hansens’ novels, especially the early ones where he was learning his craft, lies in their sentences, I have a hunch that the movie cannot help but fall short in some odd ways. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is full of sentences like these:
Jesse came to the boardinghouse with divinity fudge and a red paper heart on which he’d doggereled about ardor, and as Jesse nudged a lizard’s fringe of flame from some embering logs…
Jesse shot John Sheets in the head and heart and the banker drained off the chair.
But then Lull’s right hand glided down to a derringer and he shot it at John Younger, cutting into the jugular vein so that it surged red sleeves of blood out even as the dying boy got off a shot and killed Lull.
Bob Younger was a debonair man with a blond mustache and short brown hair and expressive eyebrows that seemed to crave a monocle. Charlie Pitts was an alias for Samuel Wells, a sometime cowhand with a handsome sunburned head that was square as a chimney, whose skin was so unclean dirt laced it like rainwater stains on tan wallpaper.
And to convince the acting cashier of that, Pitts snuck behind him with a pocket knife and slit the skin of his throat. Joseph L. Heywood was stunned. he was a slender man in his thirties with a dark beard and a scholar’s look—he could have been an algebra teacher, someone conservative and cultures, and he was, in fact, a trustee at Carleton College. Cut, he looked at Jesse with rebuke in his face as his neck unsealed and blood rolled down his collar like a red shade being drawn.
They weren’t penitent over what they’d attempted; their sorrow reached to the limits of their bodies and no further, all their anguish was in their skin.
The problem inherent in making movies from books like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (as well as with every movie made from Jim Harrison’s books) is that when you have these writers who take as their central concern essentially romantic material like the settling of the west, outlaws, and Indians, there’s always a danger of falling into sentimentality. The really good ones, like Hansen and Harrison and Rick Bass, avoid this trap by virtue of their skill with language. It’s their sentences that save the work. Their sentences that make it art.
Film, however, is a visual medium, not a linguistic medium, and hence the problem with books like Hansen’s or like Legends of the Fall is that when stripped of their language they wind up as mawkish or sentimental movies (I mean really, can anyone forgive Anthony Hopkins for portraying the aging and broken-hearted Ludlow as some kind of demented Quasimodo?).
It’s not that I don’t want to see the movie version of Jesse James — from the NY Times review it sounds like they tried to convey the poetry of Hansen’s prose as visually as possible (and I like Brad Pitt when he plays westerns — he is from Missouri originally, so at least he’ll get the accent right). Film and fiction are both about stories, but it just bugs me that because the mediums share a central task, there’s too often an assumption that they’re interchangeable. What makes a great novel does not always make a great movie and vice versa (can you imagine anything more awful than a novelization of say, the Seventh Seal?).